Various Artists – White Lace and Promises

It’s been about 18 years since anyone could claim to have “rediscovered” Paul Williams, but a tribute record is still a pretty daring proposition. There were plenty of fine pop albums filled with Williams compositions long before the diminutive star became a regular on the talk-show couches. The only obvious choices for a tribute would seem to be a dedicated look at obscure tunes from his singer/songwriter albums, or committing to sanctioned cool by overhauling Williams’ glam-rock creations from the Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack.

White Lace and Promises, however, puts together an impressive traditional tribute with a cast of 23 acts that you probably shouldn’t recognize. Lisa Mychols – whose backing for “You and Me Against the World” is smartly stripped down to piano and strings – is probably the biggest name, thanks to a modest twee discography. The extremely cultish Eytan Mirsky might seem familiar as an important power-pop contrarian, which helps him overhaul Three Dog Night’s folksy “Family of Man” into sharp Americana.

Former child star Robbie Rist shows up in too many power-pop bands to be a big name anymore. He’s fronting Ballzy Tomorrow, though, and their cover of “To Put Up With You” is a proudly savage take on what was once a quietly dismissive screed. Cait Brennan should be a star, but her techno turn on “Just an Old-Fashioned Love Song” is a frustrating reminder that her career keeps getting thwarted by bad biz and health problems.

Otherwise, you’re looking at a bunch of Bandcamp All-Stars covering big hits and welcome rarities that pretty much span Williams’ long career. That’s actually helpful. A lot of Williams’ biggest hits were recorded in the throes of El Lay excess. Nearly all of the artists here benefit from knocking out tight covers on a tighter budget. It’s kind of baffling that anyone even bothered to invest in making physical copies.

That still pays off with a proper CD booklet. You won’t need the full credits to guess that nearly all of the songs here are one- or two-person productions. The real payoff is liner notes by power-pop biographer Craig Dorfman, who does an impressive job of making a case for Williams as an outsider artist who’s made millions writing hit songs for misfits.

The well-chosen tunes really capture that spirit without relying too much on The Muppets Movie. The sole exception might seem to be XNYMFO’s “Dangerous Business,” which seems like an unnecessarily mean-spirited cover – but it’s from Williams’ stint writing lousy songs for Ishtar. Otherwise, White Lace and Promises lives up to Dorfman’s bold claim that there’s a generation that “learned more about our humanity from a frog puppet playing a banjo than we ever did from Bob Dylan.”

Various Artists
White Lace and Promises: The Songs of Paul Williams
[Curry Cuts]